I own a Technics SU-V98 integrated amplifier. I bought it some 20 years ago from Grenada (remember them?) when they were getting out of the audio equipment rent-to-own business to concentrate on VCRs. That amp, with the matching tuner and Technics 200-watt speakers (along with a turntable, CD changer and cassette deck), powered me through my personal Golden Age of music listening. Up until that purchase, I had been trying to improve my audio gear (within my basically non-existent budget) from the time I received my first portable record player as a birthday present. Sound quality was important to me then. I remember taping music over the air from an AM transistor radio as a kid and feeling so dissatisfied with the sound. With the advent of FM, sound quality improved, but FM radio was no substitute for a well-cared-for LP (or, later, CD) played on a good sound system.
But my search for better and better sound changed with that Technics purchase. I remember quite clearly feeling, when I heard that system, that the sound was good enough to satisfy me. I knew (and the past 20 years have borne this out) that I would never again feel the need to “upgrade”.
This is not to say that the Technics system is an “audiophile” one, or that I am an audiophile myself. I simply had an internal sense of what I was looking for and, when I found it, I did not feel the need to go further.
So why the sudden attack of nostalgia? Well, I mentioned that I still own the Technics amp. Although that’s true, I rarely use it for listening to music anymore. It is now mainly used as a “home theatre” amplifier (despite being “only” stereo) for our living room TV/DVD. In fact, I don’t listen to very much music at home anymore. I still listen to music a lot, but most of my listening is done either on the street (on my smartphone through earbuds) or in the car (on my docked smartphone plugged into the factory stereo in my Toyota Corolla). Music at home is now basically just background music at mealtimes or in the backyard. Gone are the days of listening to music as an activity in and of itself. I no longer find myself sitting alone in a room, positioning myself so as to maximize sound quality, listening to music while doing nothing else. And I used to do that a lot. I listed “listening to music” as a hobby on applications for summer jobs without a second thought. It was as logical as listing “reading” as a hobby. But somewhere along the way, I changed. It’s been ten years or so since I sat and carefully listened to a CD (I think it was Rush’s “Vapour Trails,” for what it’s worth.)
It’s not just me who changed. I see around me a fundamental shift in how music is enjoyed. Oh, audiophiles still exist, and Neil Young recently caused a stir with his comments about the poor quality of current digital audio formats (see here for an audiophile discussion on Young’s comments) but, as the linked piece points out, the real loss of fidelity comes from the playback systems people are using, not the digital source material. And those playback systems are tied to people’s lifestyles, not their desire for musical fidelity. Music today is mostly listened to on portable MP3 players/smartphones, using earbuds; on computers, through laptop speakers or relatively cheap powered speakers; or on car systems, where volume and (especially) bass trump fidelity. (If you have to buy a pad to keep your subwoofer from rattling your licence plate, you ain’t interested in fidelity.) Most people are buying compressed music in the form of single-track digital downloads and eschewing CDs.
Of course, I may be wrong and the changes in my listening habits are merely a result of advancing age. I do see some evidence that sound quality (if not fidelity in the audiophile sense) is making a comeback, within the bounds of current tech (I’m thinking of Beats by Dr. Dre and Apple’s AirPlay system). How about you? Has the way you listen to music changed over time? Are you more or else interested in sound quality than you used to be? Comment, as always, are welcome!